Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward is an award-winning veterinarian, impact entrepreneur, book author and media personality. When he’s not with family or pet patients, Dr. Ward can be found contemplating solutions during endurance athletics and meditation and on his weekly podcast, “Veterinary Viewfinder.” Learn more at drernieward.com
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If you’re a veterinary professional these days, chances are you’ve run across a pet owner proclaiming something like “Vets don’t study nutrition in school,” “Vets only recommend pet foods they get kickbacks on” or “Vets don’t know much about pet food in general.” It wasn’t long ago that clients looked to their veterinarians for feeding advice — and took it. Unfortunately, today’s clients rely heavily on online reviews, pet store staff and self-proclaimed internet pet experts to choose the food that fills a dog or cat’s bowl. They still value their veterinarian’s recommendation (if one is even given), but they evaluate a matrix of social media, websites and personal feeding philosophies before clicking “Buy.” We need to reclaim pet nutrition, particularly maintenance diets and treats, to enhance our patients’ health, longevity and quality of life.
This is the last in a three-part series on developing a successful nutrition program in your clinic.
I’ve researched pet obesity for the past 20 years and can confidently tell you that “regular pet food” is what the vast majority of dogs and cats eat. Therefore, an owner’s choice of diet, formulation, and feeding quantity and frequency has the greatest impact on a pet’s disease risk.
So, why are so many of us hesitant to talk about pet food with clients? Because, to put it bluntly, we often feel more like salespeople than medical experts. It’s time for that to change.
Sometime after Hippocrates declared, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” many human and animal doctors began abandoning the Greek physician’s edict in favor of prescription drugs and surgery. I’ll be the first to advocate for modern medicine, but not at the expense of nutrition. Hippocrates wasn’t preaching that veggies are superior to medicines but rather that healers shouldn’t ignore the restorative powers of diet. He wanted physicians to consider nourishment when counseling a patient suffering from illness. I believe his teachings apply to today’s veterinary professionals.
Defeating the Sales Stigma
The first step in overcoming the sales stigma that many veterinary professionals harbor about maintenance diets is to reframe the conversation as a medical intervention. The bags, cans and rolls of pet food dispensed daily into millions of bowls should be viewed as nutrient vessels that chart a course toward healthy aging. Choose the wrong boat (or fill it too full), and you might inadvertently shipwreck a pet’s well-being.
Think of normal diets not as inconsequential chow but as an opportunity to fortify long-term health. The mix of macro- and micronutrients, caloric density, and supplements plays a role in boosting immunity, fueling energy systems, maximizing mental abilities and strengthening support structures. As I’ve long said, the most important decision a client makes for a pet’s health involves what and how much is fed. We need to help them decide by celebrating pet nutrition together.
The Four P’s
Exam room success is often based on an intentional and methodical communication strategy. To help avoid feeling “sales-y” when recommending pet food, follow these four P’s.
Few people appreciate unsolicited advice, so gaining permission is essential when recommending pet food. Does the client want help? If not, the client is unlikely to accept your recommendations, even if the pet is obese or eating a diet you disapprove of. Everyone has a communication comfort threshold, and we must respect those boundaries.
I’m not saying you don’t ask. I’m saying don’t force your opinions on a client. I don’t view these conversations as win-or-lose debates but instead prompts of “When you’re ready, I’m here to help.” The goal isn’t to sell your favorite food or convince a client that your feeding philosophy is best. The goal is to help find the perfect food for the pet and its owner.
Receiving permission is important because food is a personal and emotional issue for many pet owners. They might fear being judged, have financial constraints or possess intense brand loyalty (or refusal) based on their experiences. I’ve found that many veterinary professionals feel frustrated when a client rejects a recommendation, only to discover that the problem was the client didn’t want help at the time.
What you can say is, “Based on today’s exam, Buster would benefit from losing a few pounds. I’ve got several ideas that I think could help him, including food and treats. Is that something you’d like to discuss today?”
Next, for a nutrition recommendation to stick, a problem needs solving. This is where conducting the narrative nutritional history comes into play. (Learn how at bit.ly/TVB-Nutrition-2.)
As the conversation progresses, pay attention to intervention opportunities, such as a client’s statements about:
- Bowel movements (“too hard,” “soft,” “frequent,” “infrequent”)
- Coat and hair (“dry,” “flaky,” “thin”)
- Gait (“tired,” “limp,” “lazy,” “trouble with stairs,” “less playful”)
- Mentation (“senior moments,” “less interested,” “sleep disruptions”)
All those categories offer an entry into discussing changes in maintenance diets and treats, and many might lead to therapeutic diets.
The key is to identify a problem that the pet’s current food isn’t solving and offer your alternative. Then, make it your goal to secure permission and provide a solution. You’ll see pet food compliance and adherence soar.
Practice refers to current daily feeding and treating behaviors. Do the clients feed canned, dry kibble, fresh or home-prepared diets? Do they have brand preferences? How do they give the food, how much and how often? Your solution needs to integrate as closely as possible into their habits. This is because the easier a change integrates into someone’s lifestyle, the more likely the change will last. For example, suggesting dry kibble to a home cooker might be too off-kilter for some, regardless of your medical rationale. A canned or commercial fresh preparation might be a better intermediate step.
Whatever your advice, keep it as closely aligned as possible with an existing routine for best results.
Finally, adherence to our advice is determined mainly by how well it aligns with the client’s beliefs, lifestyle and trust in us. Clients’ pet food philosophies often closely follow their personal food choices. What is the pet owner’s lifestyle? Where does the client shop? Does the owner prefer more expensive, organic, non-GMO foods or whatever’s on sale? Using the narrative nutritional history, you can offer a diet that syncs well with the owner’s way of life.
Many pet food recommendations fail by not considering the alignment between human and family food preferences. If we suggest a dry kibble to a client committed to “only the freshest foods for my family,” good luck. Conversely, if you push an expensive food to a bargain hunter, expect pushback. Once again, the goal is to match pet food with existing food beliefs.
Training Your Team
Recommendations are only as good as the person offering them. That’s why training your team on the attributes of the diets you support is vital to success. In addition to therapeutic diet training, be sure to teach the daily grinds. In the first part of this series — read “Consistency Creates Credibility” at bit.ly/TVB-Nutrition-1 — I showed how to create your pet food philosophy and share it with your team. As you begin this nutritional journey, you’ll find team members passionate about pet food, and you’ll encourage them to pursue additional continuing education. Education is truly the foundation for a practice’s success.
Next, categorize your food choices based on pet owner preferences and pet nutritional needs. List lower-cost options for cost-conscious clients and specialty diets for niche feeders, and be sure your clients can purchase the diets online through you, with home delivery whenever possible. The lists can guide staff members who are asked for recommendations and can tilt the odds toward your favorites. If you’re skeptical about my suggestions, check out the largest online pet food retailers and their recommendation algorithms. We have the advantage of being a real and trusted source instead of an anonymous AI.
In addition, publish blogs and website content to share your food recommendations. Break it into searchable articles such as “What to Feed Your Older Dog” or “My Top Choices for Senior Cats.” Try breed- and condition-specific content such as “Feeding Your Adult Labrador Retriever” and “Foods to Help Your Cat Lose Weight.” Explain the macro- and micronutrients, processing, formulation traits, and other reasons behind your advice. Don’t be afraid to name brands if you’re so inclined.
With access to online stores, you can offer a wide variety of diets without tying up cash in inventory. I often recommend trimming pet food shelf pressure to a minimum and offering the click-and-subscribe convenience that today’s pet owners demand and expect.
Winning Back Nutrition
We are entering a new era in veterinary medicine, and I believe we can win back pet nutrition from the past two decades of neglect. As we practice precision veterinary medicine powered by genomics and as the pet food revolution spreads, the art of nourishment will become more medicinal than ever. Now is the time to build your nutritional program based on therapeutic and maintenance diets, train your team on communication and the science, and share your evidence-based advice. Together, we can extend the duration and quality of the lives of the pets we love and serve.
WHAT ABOUT RAW?
Inevitably, you’ll run into a client who believes ardently in raw meat or similar feeding practices with which you disagree. Sadly, swaying a devoted acolyte away from such trends is difficult. Instead, I try to find common ground and don’t force the issue when I meet resistance or hostility. By following the four P’s (permission, problem, practice and philosophy), you’ll maintain a civil veterinary relationship if you choose it.
I accept that some clients don’t want my recommendations, so I focus on those who do. Engaging in heated battles over pet food with someone who’s resolute isn’t worth the emotional turmoil. I’m there to help the pet, and sometimes that means not discussing nutrition.